It is estimated that there were nearly 40,000 tigers in the wild in India in 1900. Even if we consider this to be a slight exaggeration there were still a lot of tigers in India at that time. Today, according to the Government there are 3500 tigers but in reality there are less than 2000 left in the wild in India.
The population of India grew dramatically after 1920s, mainly due to improved medical facilities. Just after independence, the leaders in India were under tremendous pressure to increase the amount of land available for agriculture. This was not just because of the dramatic increase in population but also because migrants from East and West Pakistan were demanding land for settlement. The only land that was readily available at that time were prime forests, which were ideal tiger habitat. From the early 1940s to late 1960s large tracts of prime forests were cleared for making more land available for agriculture, dams etc. At that time the nations priorities were definitely not tigers. Forests then were seen as an important economical resource which could be mercilessly harvested in an unsustainable manner. The focus was on getting more land for “development”.
Besides, hunting, which was perfectly legal at that time, was also taking a huge toll on the mega fauna in forests that were not cleared for “development”. Before independence, hunting was mainly the preserve of the royalty and the well heeled. In fact, almost every royal house had protected their own private reserves for hunting and outsiders were not permitted to hunt in such reserves. Most of the present day tiger reserves were the erstwhile hunting reserves of older day royalty.
After India gained independence and the royal houses declined in stature all this changed. Hunting had become “fashionable” and a large number of “Shikar companies” came into existence. Such companies used to facilitate hunting for a handsome fee and both rich Indians and foreigners flocked to prime forests to shoot mega fauna. Tigers were the biggest prize and the government welcomed the revenue that it brought, particularly the foreign exchange.
The First Tiger Crisis
The “first crisis” was in the end of 1960s. At that time the Government of India in collaboration with the the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and now known as World Wide Fund for natureWWF carried out a nation wide census of tigers and reached a conclusion that there were only about 1800 tigers left in India and if something was not done immediately they would be extinct very soon. As a result of this crisis situation, the Project Tiger was born. The Government passed the Wildlife Conservation Act in 1972 and constituted the Project Tiger. The same year hunting was banned in India. Initially, nine forest reserves were selected for special treatment and designated as “Project Tiger Reserves.” This tiger crisis was a result of “shikar” (hunting by well healed people for “fun”) and dramatic loss of forest habitat.
Launch of Project Tiger
Project Tiger, launched in 1973-74, is one of our most successful conservation ventures in the recent times. The project aims at tiger conservation in specially constituted ‘tiger reserves’, which are representative of various bio-geographical regions falling within our country. It strives to maintain a viable tiger population in the natural environment.
An estimate of the tiger population in India, at the turn of the century, placed the figure at 40,000. Subsequently, the first ever all India tiger census was conducted in 1972 which revealed the existence of only 1827 tigers. Various pressures in the later part of the last century led to the progressive decline of wilderness, resulting in the disturbance of viable tiger habitats. At the IUCN General Assembly meeting in Delhi, in 1969, serious concern was voiced about the threat to several species of wildlife and the shrinkage of wilderness in the country. In 1970, a national ban on tiger hunting was imposed and in 1972 the Wildlife Protection Act came into force. A ‘Task Force’ was then set up to formulate a project for tiger conservation with an ecological approach.
The project was launched in 1973, and various tiger reserves were created in the country on a ‘core-buffer’ strategy. The core areas were freed from all sorts of human activities and the buffer areas were subjected to ‘conservation oriented land use’. Management plans were drawn up for each tiger reserve, based on the principles outlined below:
1. Elimination of all forms of human exploitation and biotic disturbance from the core area and rationalization of activities in the buffer zone.
2. Restricting the habitat management only to repair the damages done to the eco-system by human and other interferences, so as to facilitate recovery of the eco-system to its natural state.
3. Monitoring the faunal and floral changes over time and carrying out research about wildlife.
Initially, 9 tiger reserves were established in different States during the period 1973-74, by pooling the resources available with the Central and State Governments. These nine reserves covered an area of about 13,017sq.km – Manas (Assam), Palamau (Bihar), Similipal (Orissa), Corbett (U.P.), Kanha (M.P.), Melghat (Maharashtra), Bandipur (Karnataka), Ranthambhore (Rajasthan) and Sunderbans (West Bengal).
The project started as a ‘Central Sector Scheme’ with the full assistance of Central Government till 1979-80: later, it become a ‘centrally Sponsored Scheme’ from 1980-81, with equal sharing of expenditure between the center and the states.
The W.W.F. has given an assistance of US $ 1 million in the form of equipments, expertise and literature. The various States are also bearing the loss on account of giving up the forestry operations in the reserves.
The main achievements of this project are excellent recovery of the habitat and consequent increase in the tiger population in the reserve areas, from a mere 268 in 9 reserves in 1972 to 1576 in 27 reserves in 2003. Tiger, being at the apex of the food chain, can be considered as the indicator of the stability of the eco-system. For a viable tiger population, a habitat should possess a good prey base, which in turn will depend on an undisturbed forest vegetation. Thus, ‘Project Tiger’, is basically the conservation of the entire eco-system and apart from tigers, all other wild animals also have increased in number in the project areas. In the subsequent ‘Five Year Plans’, the main thrust was to enlarge the core and buffer zones in certain reserves, intensification of protection and ecodevelopment in the buffer zones of existing tiger reserves, creation of additional tiger reserves and strengthening of the research activities.
The management strategy was to identify the limiting factors and to mitigate them by suitable management. The damages done to the habitat were to be rectified, so as to facilitate the recovery of eco-system to the maximum possible extent. Management practices which tend to push the wildlife populations beyond the carrying capacity of the habitat were carefully avoided. A minimum core of 300 sq. km. with a sizeable buffer was recommended for each project area. The overall administration of the project is monitored by a ‘Steering Committee’. The execution of the project is done by the respective State Governments. A ‘Field Director’ is appointed for each reserve, who is assisted by the field and technical personnel. The Chief Wildlife warden in various States are responsible for the field execution. At the Centre, a full-fledged ‘Director’ of the project coordinates the work for the country.
Objectives of Project Tiger
The main objective of Project Tiger is to ensure a viable population of tiger in India for scientific , economic , aesthetic , cultural and ecological values and to preserve for all time, areas of biological importance as a natural heritage for the benefit, education and enjoyment of the people. Main objectives under the scheme include wildlife management, protection measures and site specific ecodevelopment to reduce the dependency of local communities on tiger reserve resources.
Initially, the Project started with 9 tiger reserves, covering an area of 16,339 sq.km., with a population of 268 tigers. At present there are 27 tiger reserves covering an area of 37761 sq.km., with a population of 1498 tigers. This amounts to almost 1.14% of the total geographical area of the country. The selection of reserves was guided by representation of ecotypical wilderness areas across the biogeographic range of tiger distribution in the country. Project Tiger is undisputedly a custodian of major gene pool. It is also a repository of some of the most valuable ecosystem and habitats for wildlife.
Tiger Reserves are constituted on a ‘core-buffer’ strategy. The core area is kept free of biotic disturbances and forestry operations, where collection of minor forest produce, grazing, human disturbances are not allowed within. However, the buffer zone is managed as a ‘multiple use area’ with twin objectives of providing habitat supplement to the spill over population of wild animals from the core conservation unit, and to provide site specific eco-developmental inputs to surrounding villages for relieving their impact on the core. Except for the National Parks portion if contained within, normally no relocation of villages is visualised in the buffer area, and forestry operations, Forest Produce collection and other rights and concessions to the local people are permitted in a regulated manner to complement the initiatives in the core unit.
Initial Successes 1973 to 1990
Project Tiger had put the tiger on an assured course of recovery from the brink of extinction, and has resurrected the floral and faunal genetic diversity in some of our unique and endangered wilderness ecosystem. The population of tigers in the country has increased significantly to about 3500 (1990) from less than 2000 at the time of launch of the project.
The effective protection and concerted conservation measures inside the reserves brought about considerable intangible achievements also, viz. arresting erosion, enrichment of water regime thereby improving the water table and overall habitat resurrection. Labour intensive activities in tiger reserves helped in poverty alleviation amongst the most backward sections, and their dependence on forests also reduced.